December was a bit of a rough and overbooked month, and the days that came after were so full of catching up, and so things have been mostly quiet on here. But nearly a year to the day after we started reading the Lord of the Rings to our little brother by candle-light in the middle of the nights, and under umbrellas in gullies on weekends and under trees big with white blossoms all spring, and on the living-room couch with pots of tea steaming, we finished it. And so he was with us for the eighth year of the adventure of watching all three movies into the little morning hours of the New Year, and finally initiated into the world the rest of the family lives in.
All year, as we read it, I found I was more grown than last time, like a child who goes away from home and comes back to find she is tall enough to see over the kitchen countertops. Perhaps the most significant example of this is the way I heard the line that is the most familiar to me of anything in this story. Gandalf said exactly the same momentous words he always says, but I had changed in the meantime, and so heard something I had never heard before.
“All we have to decide” (who hasn’t heard these words?) “is what to do with the time that is given to us.” And Frodo is in despondency and comfortless and has a bit of an attitude problem, and he doesn’t want to hear it, and it doesn’t make anything better at the time. Indeed, it isn’t until later that these words make any difference to him at all.
And I have been a little like this, all these years that I’ve known this line like the back of my hand: unassured and comfortless. Because it sounds lovely and important, but what does it mean? I think I had it all wrong.
I thought that the stress of these words was on the decision. I supposed that the time was a little blank space that we’re given to be breathing, and that the wise word was to fill it well. It seemed to me that there must be some perfect arrangement of activities and challenges and dreams to stick into that little blank space, and if you got it right, it would be splendid, and if you got it wrong, it would be nothing but a vast regret. And when you think about it like this, it is a matter of great stress.
When I was a child, the life that was ahead was one long bucket list, and the idea of dying before I’d done every single thing I wanted to do and a great many others I hadn’t thought of yet, was unthinkable. Have you been there?
Then, at some point, the days narrowed rather suddenly into obligations, and choices couldn’t be put off any longer, but had to be made. And whenever we decide, no matter how we decide, there is loss.
And there are questions: did I make the right choice? Did I lose the right thing? Perhaps I should have been chasing that instead, when all along I was chasing this… And the comfort is cold: “All you have to decide is what to do, etc.”
Because deciding is wretched and it’s no relief to know that is the lot that has fallen to us. When we were children and still had all our choices, we felt like we owned them all, in all their beauty, merely in virtue of the fact that they were all still before us. But when I get down to really choosing, I get so many things wrong. Do you?
Thank goodness that’s not what Gandalf was saying.
Thank goodness the stress of the comfort is not on what we have to decide but on the other thing: The Time That Is Given To Us.
The Time doesn’t come to us like a blank space, as we suppose when we are children. It didn’t come to Frodo that way, did it? Oh no, the Time comes with a face and a place and a history, and the stress of Gandalf’s comfort wasn’t that there is much to be decided and we ought to do it carefully, but that there is so much we don’t have to decide.
They are sitting by the fire in Bag End, and ahead there is the road winding away from peace and out into wounds and war and loneliness, and although Frodo can’t know it yet, he feels it and is afraid. “I wish it need not have happened in my time,” says Frodo.
Oh, so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. We think we could have made a better choice for our days, if the choice had been ours. All who live to see such times wish that, says Gandalf. But would they really? If they knew what a miserable thing it is to make choices, would they still want to decide? If they knew that in peace we are anxious for adventure, and wandering and ways to prove ourselves, and that in war all the world’s longings are condensed in our ache to be home one more time and eat a quiet supper and kiss our children goodnight? Would they still want to choose?
The comfort is that we don’t have to choose the time we are given, don’t get to, aren’t expected to. It might be the barren fear of Weathertop or the long dark of Moria, or embarking alone in a little white boat, scared stiff and so lonely. But it’s not yours to choose the color of your times or even the road under your feet. We are born into a time and a story and we aren’t allowed to ask for another time or another story. All we have to decide is how we shall make glory out of the time and the story that is ours. And that is not so wretched, although it is very, very hard.
When the time that is given to you comes defined and fitted with a face, the choice is simpler, and happier. If your lot is a hopeless battle and bloody death in a war that no one will remember, you must do it well, because it is all you get. If your time is evil days and ruin closing in and the Ring of Power flashing the red eye at you in the council of the confused and confounded wise, you must get up and take it, because that is your road. And if you are stuck in a waste of uncertainty and cannot see what is around the bends, and everything is bleak, bleak, you must press into the fog and find Him. And you don’t need to be thinking about all the ways you might have had a more fulfilling time given to you, because it was never yours to choose. It was a gift. And if you know the Giver, you know it was a good one.